Here is my homily for Sunday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time, Cycle B.
Here is my homily for Sunday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time, Cycle B.
Picture it: the USA 2014. You’re a person who works a regular job and for the most part gets along fine in life; however, you suffered in the past from bouts of perhaps depression, oversensitivity, little things of this nature that have caused you difficulty in your normal daily functioning, so at the suggestion of friends you have willingly placed yourself under the care of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist is very helpful to you. In most situations, he’s giving you a pep talk in helping you see through the issues that cloud your mind so that you can able to understand more clearly exactly what’s taking place and how is the proper way for you to act in any given situation. When you needed more than encouraging words, he prescribed a mild medication, maybe something just to relax your nerves a little bit to aid you. But for the most part he’s there for support and guidance and you find him very helpful. Then one day something really sets you off edge. You have a real crisis in your family, at your job, in a relationship, and it really throws you to pieces and your shaking and trembling and don’t know what to do. Perhaps you’re even reduced to tears. A friend talks with you and asks you what the psychiatrist said when you called him and you said, “Oh I didn’t call the psychiatrist! I stopped going to him because I’m too upset about what’s happening in my life!” Does that make any sense? The psychiatrist is precisely the person who could help you through the difficulties at this moment, so now is a time when you would need him all the more. If you told your friend you didn’t call the psychiatrist because you are angry with him, that this was all his fault, what do you think your friend would say? Would it make any sense whatsoever to blame the doctor because you encounter difficulties in your life? Of course not!
But sometimes it seems to me we make the same mistake with God. When everything is going fine perhaps we go to church on Sunday and we pray every day, but then a crisis comes up, and instead of turning to God all the more in prayer we stop going to church; we stop praying. We get angry at God, as if the difficulty that happened to us was all his fault, and so we stay away from him. But does that give us any relief? Does it help us deal with the situation and improve it? Of course not! God is the one who can help us through the difficulty and at a time such as this the last thing we should do is stop praying and stop going to church simply because something difficult happened. We have all the more reason to turn up the heat on our prayer and energize it so that we can get through this crisis.
God sometimes is like that psychiatrist for us. Many times our prayer just gives us the ability to see things clearly and God in his own way is comforting us and showing us how to handle the difficulties in our life. Perhaps sometimes when we might need a few more graces he may send them our way to help us through the difficulty. But even just knowing that God is there comforting us and saying to us “you’re not alone!” can bring us so much comfort, so much peace! Just like when a friend says to us, “Hey! I’m there for you the whole way!” even if there’s really nothing they can do. Well, if the support of a friend who can’t really do anything to help us would be so powerful for us, imagine what God can do for us when we turn to him in those moments of need!
So when problems happen in your life, do not blame God. Do not stay away from him thinking that somehow you have to handle this on your own, or that praying is not what you need right now. Actually, praying is exactly what we need. Prayer is the medicine that helps us get through the difficulties, that reminds us of God’s presence in our lives, and helps us deal with tremendous things that otherwise we could never handle on our own. So by all means keep a regular prayer life when things are going well, but when difficulties arise rather than make making the mistake that many people do of blaming God for their pain and turning away from him, turn to him all the more and he will be there for you! He will comfort you. God is the doctor to see you through the crisis. God is there for you every moment of every day, every step of the way!
Once again we begin our Lenten journey. Every year, as we come on Ash Wednesday to receive our ashes and begin our journey, our hearts are always filled with the desire to grow closer to God and to make these forty days of Lent truly a time of conversion. And yet, many of us discover every year that we haven’t received everything we expected to get out of Lent. Sometimes perhaps it’s because our Lenten observances are not strong enough. Let me give you an example from my own life:
When I was in the seminary, I was once thinking about what to give up for Lent, and I realize I liked a good cup of coffee after dinner. So I decided to give up my coffee after dinner during Lent. But as I entered Lent I discovered I needed something to settle my stomach after dinner, so I decided, “Well, tea is not coffee; I can drink tea!” I never used to drink tea, but I thought this would be a good alternative. Lent came and Easter followed, and I found I enjoyed my tea very much, so I continued to have tea after supper every night instead of coffee. Then the next year when Lent rolled around I was looking for something to do and I said, “I can give up my tea and have coffee instead!” I could go my whole life going back and forth from giving up coffee and tea and never really doing anything penitential. That could almost be like a child who gives up vanilla ice cream and has only chocolate, and the next year gives up chocolate ice cream and only has vanilla. I think we can all see how pointless such an observance would be. But then sometimes maybe we tried to do too much. We get overambitious and we set unreasonable goals for ourselves. For example if we were to say “I’m giving up TV for all of Lent”, we might find that a little bit too much to handle. So maybe just giving up a certain amount of TV during Lent, maybe pick one day of the week – perhaps Friday – and give up TV on that day.
But sometimes we are perfect at what we decide to do, and yet Lent still doesn’t have the full effect that it could. Imagine, for example, you decide to give up candy during Lent and you’re good; you don’t touch a piece of candy for the entire Lenten journey. Then Easter Sunday comes and you get yourself an Easter basket and you go on a binge and you eat all the candy you would’ve had during Lent and then some, and quickly discover on Easter Monday you’re no different person from what you were on Ash Wednesday. Well, if that’s ever happened to you – and believe me it’s happened to me many times – then perhaps were only going about things as a battle of willpower or perhaps just doing penance for our sins but not maximizing what could really happen. Ideally Lenten penance should be aimed at helping us grow in the virtues we need to achieve, so if I know there’s a certain area that I need to improve in my life, I should look for a Lenten practice that will help me grow in that area. Let’s take one example: if I’m always the type that does binge spending, that I buy whatever I want whether or not I need it, an effective penance for that would be to agree that every time I buy something for myself that I don’t really need I give the equal amount of money to the poor. That would end binge spending rather quickly!
But whatever we choose to do, nothing will make any sense if were not joining it with prayer, and sometimes that can be the thing that is most lost in our Lenten journey – praying. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have a barometer – something to measure whether or not were improving in prayer. It’s easy for us to know if we’ve faithfully avoided eating candy all during Lent, but to say I’ve improved in prayer? How do we measure that? I think the best thing to do is to set ourselves a practical and physical goal, perhaps of spending a certain amount of time in prayer every day and remain faithful to it. Don’t try to make it too much; don’t say you’re going to spend three hours in prayer every day: you won’t do it! Some people could say they will spend an hour every day and keep to it, others maybe only a half-hour or even 15 minutes. But if we commit ourselves to a reasonable amount of time every day and make sure we do it then we will be praying every day and that prayer will be the piece necessary to make all of the rest of our Lenten observances more profitable for us spiritually. So set a small reasonable goal, may be just a few minutes every day, whatever is appropriate for you, and if it comes to a day where you’ve completed the time and you want to spend more time, great! Now we are really growing in our prayer because were looking for more time. So in addition to the traditional things we do of self-denial and almsgiving – reaching out to the needy – let us not forget to add prayer into the mixture. Here at St. Ann’s Parish we are giving everyone who comes for ashes on Ash Wednesday a little packet where there is a card on which they can tell us what they did in the course of the week – all anonymously – and then just put the card in the Sunday collection, and will tally it and show the parish how much we collectively prayed during the past week. Hopefully, we will see ourselves as a parish growing in prayer. We can also do that for ourselves. If we started with 15 minutes a day in the beginning of Lent and ended with a half-hour, we will have a concrete measuring rod to show how much we have increased our time in prayer, and if our time in prayer has grown, I guarantee our quality of prayer will have grown as well, and when Easter Sunday comes around we will discover we did not merely battle our willpower to see if we could give up chocolate or whatever it was for forty days, but we will truly have grown closer to the Lord in our prayer, and we will be different people on Easter Sunday than we were on Ash Wednesday. A blessed Lent to you all!
Question (submitted by a fictitious friend): A friend of mine told me that the Catholic Church is sinning by giving honor to the saints. He said we are guilty of idolatry, worshipping someone other than God. While I know this is not true, I couldn’t explain it well enough. How do I respond to my friend’s question?
Answer: Your friend’s objection, while common, is based on a misunderstanding of our practice of giving honor to the saints. We are not in fact worshipping the saints at all. There are several levels of what in English is commonly called “worship”. In matters of faith we are careful to make distinctions between them. The worship due only to God is what is called in Greek latria. (We take our English word idolatry” from this, meaning “false worship”.) True worship is the praise and honor of God for whom He is and the humble submission of ourselves before His sovereign majesty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the following explanation of worship of God:
“To adore [worship] God is to acknowledge, in respect and absolute submission, the ‘nothingness of the creature’ who would not exist but for God. To adore God is to praise and exalt him and to humble oneself, as Mary did in the Magnificat, confessing with gratitude that he has done great things and holy is his name. The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2097)
Hopefully, anyone would clearly see that this is not at all what Catholics do when we honor the saints. We show toward the saints what is called in Greek dulia. (Our English word “adulation” comes from this word.) It is best translated as esteem or honor, but not as worship, certainly not as latria. We admire them somewhat like heroes. They are people who have lived this life and shown us that it can be done. They encourage us to keep the faith and remain in the ways of the Lord, knowing that if we follow their example, we too can obtain the glory of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. Some of them we honor as particular patrons, and we develop special devotion to certain saints due to their occupation, their homeland, their particular trial in life, or because we bear their name. So, for example, a doctor might have special devotion to St. Luke, the patron saint of physicians, because Luke was a physician. Irish Catholics have great devotion to St. Patrick because he Christianized Ireland. In Siena, Italy, St. Catherine is especially honored because she came from Siena. People with throat ailments turn to St. Blase, who, according to legend, miraculously healed a young boy who was choking on a fish bone. Women named Ann might have great devotion to St. Ann because they bear her name. Or sometimes, people are simply affected by the saint’s life, and they find a helpful example in their story or their writings. And this is why the Church directs us to venerate the saints. They show us that this life can be lived according to the Gospel. They have survived the period of trial here on earth, and their life gives us an example and thereby strengthens us in our efforts to follow Jesus. We are not worshipping them; rather, we are turning to them to ask them to pray for us. It is best to say that we venerate them, but we worship God!
Objection: My friend also asked me why I feel I have to go through a saint? Why don’t I just go straight to God and pray to him?
Response: Have you ever asked a friend to pray for you? Wouldn’t you be surprised if your friend responded by saying, “Well, why are you asking me to pray for you? Why don’t you just go directly to God yourself?” I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that you yourself were not going to pray for your need. You were asking your friend also to pray for you. That’s what we’re doing with the saints: in addition to our own prayer, we ask them to pray for us as well, since they are in God’s Kingdom and can help perfect our prayer, as they are wiser than we. It’s amazing that some people have no problem asking ministers, parents, friends and others to pray for them, but when we ask the saints to pray for us, they raise objections. If we can ask our friends on earth to pray for us, why can we not ask our friends in heaven to pray for us as well? Who better to ask to pray for us than Christ’s friends who are at his side? It is part of our belief in the Communion of Saints, that because we are one body in Christ, all the members of the body not only can but also should care for and be concerned about the welfare of the others. The saints in heaven are not excluded; on the contrary, they live in the fullness of the presence of Christ, and desire to be of help to us in our struggle to join them in God’s Kingdom. This hits on another common misunderstanding: we are not really praying to the saints, but through them! No proper prayer asks a saint to respond directly to our need as if he were personally able to respond and grant our request. We ask the saint to pray for us. We’re not praying to the saint instead of to Jesus; we’re praying to Jesus through the saint, and asking him to pray with us. Are there abuses? Sure there are! It’s bound to happen in any part of life that involves human beings. But we work hard to try to correct them. An example of a faulty notion of prayer that we’re forever trying to correct is the “magical miracle prayers” that are often left in the candle racks in churches or are published in the personal pages of newspapers, usually on the same page as the obituaries. These prayers promise results if a person says the prayer and leaves copies in church. They claim the prayer is “never known to fail.” Such prayers are not official Catholic prayers, are contrary to Catholic belief, and are not sanctioned by the Church. They are the product of probably well-intentioned individuals with a somewhat warped understanding of what prayer is. Whenever we find those prayer sheets in our church, we simply throw them away. But just because some people distort and abuse the practice of involving the saints in our prayer doesn’t mean the practice is bad. It is our job to correct abuses and help people understand what proper prayer is.
Question: My friend also said our practice of using statues is sinful because it violates the commandment to not make a graven image. Is he right?
Answer: No, he is not, although at first glance it may seem so. We need to understand precisely what God was forbidding when he forbade carving idols, or graven images. The commandment reads as such: “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.” (Ex 20: 4-5) We need, however, to understand the difference between an idol and a statue. In the ancient world, it was common practice for people to carve images and worship the image itself as if it were actually the god it represented. They thought the statue itself was the god. This was what was happening in the instance when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it. They declared, “This is your God, 0 Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Ex 31:4) The Lord grew angry with the Israelites because they worshipped the calf as if it were God Himself A similar situation can be seen in the Book of Genesis in the story of Rachel – Jacob’s wife – who stole her father’s household gods. Her father runs after Jacob asking him why he stole his gods. (cf Gen 31) The implication in this story is that she has stolen more than mere images: in effect, she has actually stolen his gods! This is what the commandment in fact prohibits. If someone were to enter our church and steal the crucifix, we’d have to go out and get a new one. No one, however, would think that Jesus Himself had actually been stolen from us. Furthermore, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cherubim.” (Catechism, 2130) We must not forget that, with the incarnation of God as Man in the person of Jesus, we are under a new system. As proof of this, observe what happened at the Transfiguration of Jesus. In the Old Testament, it was forbidden for anyone to look upon the face of God and live. When God appeared before Moses on Mt. Sinai, God covered Moses’ face as He passed by, so that Moses could only see His back. (cf. Exodus 33:18-23) Similarly, when the Lord appeared to Elijah on the same mountain, when Elijah heard the voice of the Lord in the tiny whispering sound, he hid his face and stood at the entrance of the cave. (cf. l Kings 19:13) At the Transfiguration, however, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus as His glory is revealed, and they are permitted to look into His face. And not only they, but Peter, James, and John are also privileged by Jesus to do so. (cf. Mark 9:2-8) It is therefore clear that Jesus is introducing a new understanding of the relationship between God and man. While the Jews never called God by name, we now may do so freely by calling upon the name of Jesus. We can see Him, touch Him, even eat His body and drink His blood. By becoming man, God has introduced a completely new relationship with us, not one of fear and distance, but of love and closeness. The catechism continues,
“By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images. The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone.” (Catechism, 2131, 2132. Quotes are from St. Basil.)
Basically, what the Church is saying is that, by venerating images of Jesus, and even the saints, the Blessed Mother and the angels, we are actually giving honor to Jesus Himself. We are honoring the person they represent, not the images themselves. It is interesting to notice that many people who object to the use of statues of Jesus or the saints have no problem with paintings or drawings of them. Well, statues are simply three-dimensional drawings. Surely God is not declaring that sin is determined by the number of dimensions in an image. That would be an example of the very hair-splitting differences for which Jesus criticized the Pharisees. How could anyone honestly say that a two-dimensional figure is holy but a three-dimensional one is idolatry? We must look to the heart of the law, not merely the letter of the law. Once again, it is important that we remember the significance of the Incarnation, of God becoming man. In doing so, He has introduced a new order – a new economy – of salvation. Because Jesus took on flesh, He has brought the divine into our world in a human way, so that our representation of Him or of anyone who now beholds Him face to face has become a pious act. Since we can now view God in human form, we can also represent Him in human form and venerate that image – and the image of any creature in His kingdom, including the angels and saints – for in doing so, we reflect upon the fact that our mortal flesh has been called to share in the dignity that is His and that has been granted to those in His kingdom. He has taken on our nature so that we can take on His.